Richmond, VA. (CN) — After nearly a decade, Virginia hopes to address its long history of political gerrymandering through a voter-approved constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall.
However, shifting power dynamics and compromises made by both parties as the deadline to redraw district line approaches have led to public inter party disputes and a divide between newer and more senior legislators as the public decides whether to alter the state’s founding document.
Redistricting is the process used to draw new maps every 10 years with the population count enumerated under the decennial national census. Next year, along with the rest of the country, Virginia will use that head count to redraw its 40 Senate and 100 House of Delegates seats.
Like the U.S. Congress, whoever holds the majority in these chambers holds the power to pass new laws or even hear legislation during the state’s annual General Assembly session. Those in power also, as the state’s Constitution dictates now, also have the power to redraw their own maps.
In order to change that last part, it will require a constitutional amendment but amending Virginia’s constitution is rigorous. It takes the General Assembly approving the language of an amendment over two years with a House of Delegates election in between. The amendment then goes before voters on the November ballot and requires a majority to pass.
“If you want to test a man's character, give him power,” said Delegate Jason Miyares, R-VA Beach, quoting former President Abraham Lincoln, as he reflected on the state’s - and his party’s - history of manipulating maps to benefit one party over the other.
This U.S. Supreme Court-sanctioned act, known as political or partisan gerrymandering, and its demise was the original basis for the November's amendment; instead of politicians drawing lines a non-partisan group would handle the issue.
The current redistricting effort, set to go before voters this November, will create a bipartisan commission made up of eight legislators from both parties along with eight citizen appointees.
This group of 16 will draw the map, vote on it with a supermajority required for passage before sending it to the Legislature for approval by both chambers. The amendment also opens up the process, forcing meetings and data to be available to the public rather than being kept shielded by legislative privilege which the state’s Supreme Court had previously affirmed.
It does not offer specific rules for how those maps must be drawn, called criteria, for mapmakers, an issue that is at the core of disputes ahead of election day.
“What we’ve done traditionally is one side tries to rig the system to get an advantage over the other,” Miyares said in a phone interview. “Both parties have been guilty of it and used it to their own advantage.”
This problem was highlighted over the last decade after Virginia’s 2011 map was challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before being struck as a racial gerrymander in 2019.
While the racial gerrymander illegally grouped some districts by race, the maps also carved out more districts for Republicans. President Barack Obama won over 50% of the state in 2012, but the map the conservative party drew the year before gave Republicans 68 of the state’s House of Delegates seats.
The Supreme Court ordered redraw, however, created the exact problem the Republican majority in 2011 admitted they sought to avoid: Democrats gaining seats and taking control of both chambers over the last four years.
Miyares noted he was among the few members of the Virginia GOP who used his seat on the House’s election subcommittee to vote in favor of an earlier version of the redistricting amendment in 2017. That vote led to him losing his committee seat but he said he doesn't regret it and now supports the version set to go before voters this fall.